LAS VEGAS — Before Alex Ovechkin fastened his new “Eastern Conference Champions” hat and hoisted the Prince of Wales Trophy, before he hugged every one of his teammates in joy, before he was at a loss for words because the emotions were too strong to explain, he stood on the Washington Capitals’ bench, balled his fists, hung his head back and wailed.
He looked strong and fearsome. He looked like someone releasing 13 years of pent-up frustration in one scream. He had thought of one thing all season.
“We can’t lose again,” Ovechkin said. “We can’t lose this chance.”
Consider this Capitals run to the Stanley Cup finals against the Vegas Golden Knights both redemption and validation for Washington’s captain, a smug nod to a decade’s worth of critics. Nine postseason runs before this one ended short of the conference finals, and Ovechkin — and specifically his questionable commitment to two-way play — often was blamed for the Capitals’ playoff ineptitude, even though he averaged roughly a point per game in the postseason.
So for Washington to be a winner, maybe Ovechkin really did fundamentally alter something about his offseason regimen to start this season in better shape. Maybe getting married bred a certain maturity. Or maybe Ovechkin just finally got fed up with being labeled a loser.
“There were a lot of people doubting that he still had what it took,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “The great players take exception to that. A lot of things were said at the end of last year in the press, Twitter, whatever — the social medias and all that. And they’re hurtful, and I think he took it personally. He said, ‘I’m going to show you I’m still a great player.’ And he did.”
The trade deadline was a little more than a month away when the Capitals visited the Carolina Hurricanes in mid-January. Ovechkin was waiting to take the ice for a morning skate and decided to joke with some reporters standing nearby. If he were to get traded, he pondered aloud, what would he fetch in return?
“Couple of sticks?” he said with a grin.
After a disappointing second-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh last year, General Manager Brian MacLellan publicly challenged Ovechkin to spend the offseason getting slimmer so he could be speedier in a younger NHL. At the start of the 2017-18 season Ovechkin would be 32 years old, and he was coming off one of his least productive seasons with 33 goals.
Unlike basketball and football, when star players are directly involved in the offense for the vast majority of the game, top NHL forwards are typically on the ice for a third of the action. So while one player could have a significant impact on a game, hockey is still the epitome of a team sport. But criticism comes with the captaincy, and as Washington faced a summer of roster turnover because of salary cap constraints, pundits proffered that dealing Ovechkin at least should be a consideration.
“I really think it’s time for the Washington Capitals to look at moving Alex Ovechkin,” ESPN’s Barry Melrose told Scott Van Pelt last May.
“I think the Ovechkin experiment has to be reviewed,” NBC Sports’s Mike Milbury said after the Capitals’ Game 7 loss to the Penguins. “Lots of decisions to make. He tries hard. I just don’t think he’s a heady enough hockey player to get it done in key moments.”
Trading Ovechkin was never really an option for Washington, but as former Capitals forward Mike Knuble said Sunday, “Players aren’t stupid. They know what’s being said about them.” It bothered Ovechkin more when he was younger, and his persona steadily turned from fun loving and flashy to reserved.
“Of course you read news. Of course you’re paying attention to what people saying,” Ovechkin said. “But sometimes you just have to hear it, and it goes in one ear and out the other. Because if you’re going to take all of this information, you’re going to be crazy, you know? You’re going to be psycho. You just can’t play hockey after that. The first couple of years when we lost, of course it was hard. Of course, it was like, ‘Oh Jesus, what did I do wrong?’ ”
So how does it feel to know the narrative could be dead now that he has advanced to a first Stanley Cup finals?
“It’s not over yet,” he said.
Despite MacLellan’s request for Ovechkin to make changes to his training, Ovechkin said he largely kept his summer routine the same, and he was just four pounds lighter at the start of training camp. His production during these playoffs — 12 goals and 10 assists in 19 games — isn’t vastly different from what it was in the nine postseasons before: 90 points in 97 games. So has Ovechkin really changed, or could it just be a combination of fortunate bounces and the right mix of players around him?
“You feel like he’s all-in,” said Knuble, who was Ovechkin’s teammate from 2009 to 2012. “He’s not just scoring goals and then not caring about what happens on the other end.”
“I don’t know if Ovi would say it, but there’s a maturity there that has got to a new level I think this year, I think both on and off the ice,” MacLellan said. “I think the way he plays this year is more within the team structure. This is the most systematic he’s played throughout his career, in my mind. I think he’s always scored goals, but the same for our team. Our commitment to team defense is as good as it’s ever been, and he’s been a big part of it, actually.”
As for what sparked that maturity, MacLellan has a theory.
“I think getting married probably helped him,” he said. “I think [Nastya Ovechkina] been a good influence on him, personally, and maybe it has translated into his performance on the ice.”
Ovechkin would agree he has “settled down,” spending most of his free time with his wife and their dog at their home in McLean. In between playoff games, they have gone swimming at the pond nearby before grilling for a few friends. Does the peaceful family life affect his play?
“I’ll just give you an example,” Ovechkin said, suddenly more animated than he was talking about hockey.
He considers his sister-in-law, Maria, a “lucky charm” because several of his hat tricks have coincided with her visits to Washington. So after the Capitals lost their first game to the Penguins in the second round this postseason, Maria came to town, just in time for Washington to win its next game and tie the series. With the Capitals up two-games-to-none against Tampa Bay in the conference finals, she returned to Moscow.
The Capitals then lost three straight games to the Lightning. Ovechkin was flying home to Washington for Game 6 of the series when his wife called him to let him know that Maria was on her way back to attend the final two games of the series, a little extra bit of support.
“It give me more emotions,” Ovechkin said. “Like, the lucky charm is coming, you know? All those small things give you extra energy, extra emotions. They support me, and I support them. But right now, everything on the line to help us get success.”
Experience has taught him that success is hard work and winning shouldn’t be taken for granted. There were years he went into a playoff series assuming the Capitals would “dominate” the opponent only to be on the losing end of it. Salary cap constraints pushed out skilled veterans and ushered in unproven rookies with inexpensive free agent depth players, a weaker Washington roster on the surface. What made this rendition special was that it played more as a team, making up for its lesser talent with its commitment to structure.
Ovechkin set the tone with that, and as the underdog Capitals advanced through each step of the playoffs, he repeatedly hung his head back and seemed to exhale, the pressure finally off.
“I think he’s approaching the playoffs with a little more ease,” Trotz said. “He’s been freed a little bit — freed in a sense of understanding that he’s a great player no matter what. I think too much was put on him. I think he got away from realizing that he is a good player and he’s a good person and he does all those things. It just freed him enough that he’s now got a chance to get the ultimate prize. We’re four wins away, and he’s been a big reason for it along with his teammates. You don’t win three rounds, you don’t win a round, you don’t win anything in this sport by yourself.”
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